It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I can’t really argue with the Cannes jury’s decision to award the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I found its overarching cosmic aspirations indigestible – the film felt like an attempt to refit the Sublime for the IMAX era – but Malick was undeniably determined to challenge narrative cinema’s traditional limitations.
The film that I hoped would win outright was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia. The director of such spare and suggestive movies as Uzak and Climates, Ceylan has come of age as a heavyweight auteur: his film was by far the most serious in competition, and the one that made most demands on the viewer’s intelligence. Sometimes gruelling, this long, sober film follows a police inquiry, though we don’t find out what’s being investigated until the crime scene is reached some 90 minutes in – after a long nocturnal section in which officers, a prosecutor and a doctor drive around the countryside in thick darkness.
With competition films including the delicious silent-cinema spoof The Artist and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, a cheering tribute to French humanist cinema, the festival director, Thierry Frémaux, delivered on his promise to give audiences a more enjoyable time than usual.
Not that there was any lack of sobriety. There was surprisingly little critical discussion of Michael, partly because it was the competition’s outstanding feel-bad experience, partly because it conspicuously omitted the expected element of scandal. The first film by Markus Schleinzer (who has worked on a number of Michael Haneke’s movies), Michael is a rigorously detached banality-of-evil study taken to the extremes of quotidian drabness: its suburban paedophile seems to derive as little satisfaction from oppressing his 10-year-old hostage as he does from his job at an insurance company. Michael was uncomfortable rather than agonising to watch, and Michael Fuith, playing the paedophile, achieved a major feat in making his character not only loathsome but also mesmerisingly dull.
If there was a trend in Cannes this year, it was the resurgence of narrative pleasure and invention. The Kid With the Bike, by the Dardenne brothers, is a compact story about a young boy choosing an adoptive mother; the story’s narrative shifts are so subtle that you almost don’t notice that it’s a hyper-distilled melodrama, an elliptical modern rewrite of Oliver Twist. Kaurismäki’s Le Havre knowingly exploited ready-mades – the big-hearted shoeshine man, the candid runaway, the tough but decent copper – to spin a minimalist parable that’s not only joyous but politically impassioned too, in its disgust at France’s immigration policies.
Other films were more extravagantly fabulist. I enjoyed Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, but his movies often resemble meticulously crafted Fabergé eggs – all mirrors, inside and out, finally showing you nothing but the way in which they recombine fragments of his other work. Ostensibly a tribute to European horror, and particularly to Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, Almodóvar’s latest is about a demented plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) and his mysterious patient (Elena Anaya). It turned into outright farce halfway through, with the revelation of an outrageous twist, but overall is as gorgeously opaque as Anaya’s perfect skin, which appears to have been given a CGI gloss throughout.
An even more flamboyant storytelling exercise – and the film I enjoyed most – was This Must Be the Place, an English-language film by Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, Il Divo). Playing a jaded 1980s rock star called Cheyenne, Sean Penn is barely recognisable – not only because he’s wearing a wig and make-up modelled on Robert Smith of The Cure, but also because he at last shows evidence of a sense of humour. The film starts as a portrait of Cheyenne’s sweetly mundane home life – he’s happily married to a cheerful firefighter, played by Frances McDormand. It then turns into a road movie, as Cheyenne – who turns out to come from an Orthodox Jewish family – goes on the hunt for a Nazi war criminal. Sorrentino wears his influences on his sleeve – the Coen brothers, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas,David Byrne’s True Stories. But the film, photographed by Luca Bigazzi, digests and reconstitutes its borrowings with intoxicating exuberance.
Some years, Cannes only reassures you that cinema continues to subsist. This time, the sense of renewed possibility, if not of radical innovation, was unmissable.